German/Grammar/Noun phrases

Noun phrasesEdit

So far we've only used pronouns in a sentence. But now the we've gotten the preliminary work out of the way, we can start using actual nouns as well.


We'll use the word "phrase" to mean a string of one or more words which forms a single functional unit within a sentence. A clause expresses a thought or action in a sentence apart from the main thought or action. So the entire sentence hierarchy goes Sentence, Clause, Phrase, Word. Of course you can go further up in the hierarchy, Paragraph, Section, Chapter, etc., or further down, Morpheme, Syllable, Phoneme, etc., but grammar is mostly only concerned with the levels between word and sentence. There are, of course, different types of phrases depending on the specific function.

  • A verb complex describes the action taking place. So far we've only done verb complexes that consist of a single verb, but more interesting possibilities exist as well. For example, in English:
    • help
    • did help
    • would have helped
    • must have wanted to help
are all verb complexes. We'll get into the details of verb complexes in German in another section, but we're concentrating on nouns for the moment.
  • A noun phrase tells you who or what is performing the action and who or what is being affected by it. So far we've only covered noun phrases that consist of a single pronoun. But again, there are more interesting possibilities. For example:
    • I
    • Kevin
    • the dog
    • the brown dog over there
    • my lazy, good-for-nothing cousin-in-law who never worked a day in his life when he could mooch off of one of his relatives
are all noun phrases. Note that the last example includes a couple of clauses within it, which would seem to contradict the hierarchy given above. But the hierarchy is more of a recursive structure than a strict hierarchy. This greatly increases the power and flexibility of the language, but also creates the possibility of phrases becoming arbitrarily long. (An example of this is the Monty Python skit "Njorl's Saga", where the opening line actually threatens to continue indefinitely.)
  • An adverbial phrase provides additional information about the action not contained in the verb complex or the noun phrases. Again, we've only covered adverbs so far, but more interesting adverbial phrases are possible. (We shall include prepositional phrases, to be covered later, under this heading as well). For example:
    • quickly
    • in the library
    • in a library full of musty, moldering, old books
are adverbial phrases. We'll go into more detail on these, including the use of prepositions in German, in another section.
  • There are other types of phrases as well, but this covers what we'll need for now.

The purpose of classifying different types of phrases in this way is that phrases of the same type are often interchangeable in terms of their role in a sentence. For example any noun phrase (in the nominative case) can be used as the subject of a sentence, and a pronoun is one kind of noun phrase, so a pronoun can be used as the subject in a sentence.

The (article + noun) phrase typeEdit

The simplest type of noun phrase consists of a pronoun, and we've already seen how these work. Another possibility is a proper noun, meaning someone's (or something's) name. For example

  • Leila schläft. – "Leila is sleeping."

Note that the verb is conjugated according to the number and person of the subject, which for proper norns will usually be third person singular.

An actual noun can be part of a noun phrase, but in German, as in English, most nouns can't be used without words to introduce them. The words that can be used for such introductions are called determiners in general. In this section we'll be talking about a special type of determiner called an article. While most determiners convey additional information about the nouns they introduce, the only purpose of an article is to do the introduction.

German, like English, capitalizes proper nouns. Unlike English, all other nouns (but not pronouns) are always capitalized in German. This is a basic spelling rule in German, easy to understand and follow, and ignoring it will give the impression that you're simply not trying to write correctly.

Articles in GermanEdit

In English, articles come in two flavors, definite "the" and indefinite "a(n)". The definite article is used before nouns which have been mentioned earlier or nouns that the listener will obviously already be aware of. The indefinite article is used before nouns which the speaker is introducing for the first time. This is about the same way it works in German, but German, being more highly inflected than English, requires different articles depending on the gender, number and case as well. In the nominative case, the definite articles are:

  • der – "the" (with masculine nouns)
  • die – "the" (with feminine nouns)
  • das – "the" (with neuter nouns)
  • die - "the" (with plural nouns, of any gender)

and the indefinite articles are:

  • ein – "a(n)" (with masculine nouns)
  • eine – "a(n)" (with feminine nouns)
  • ein – "a(n)" (with neuter nouns)
  • (nothing) - (nothing) (with plural nouns)

One thing you may notice is that there is no indefinite article for plurals in English or German. It's tempting to call "some", or it's German equivalent einige, an article for plural nouns, but the consensus is that these words be classified differently and that the indefinite article for plurals is the so-called null or zero article, which is really just saying that there is no article at all in this case.


Again, the verb must be conjugated according to the number and person of the subject. Recall that the verb we're using, schlafen, has a stem change in the third person singular.

  • Der Hund schläft. – "The dog is sleeping."
  • Die Katze schläft. – "The cat is sleeping."
  • Das Kind schläft. – "The child is sleeping."
  • Die Kinder schlafen. – "The children are sleeping."
  • Ein Hund schläft. – "A dog is sleeping."
  • Eine Katze schläft. – "A cat is sleeping."
  • Ein Kind schläft. – "A child is sleeping."
  • Kinder schlafen. – "Children are sleeping."

Articles as a memory aidEdit

Since every gender gets a different definite article in German, a helpful way to memorize the gender of noun is to learn the article that goes with it at the same time that you learn the noun. For example, the word for "table", Tisch does not fit any of the usual rules for finding gender, and so the gender has to be memorized. So instead of learning Tisch as the German for "table", memorize der Tisch to remember the noun and its gender at the same time.

When are determiners needed?Edit

As in English, there are certain situations where German does not require a determiner in front of a noun. While German and English do tend to agree on this issue, for example with plural nouns, there are are exceptions and they are difficult to classify. For now we'll talk about a major one, namely that many abstract nouns often have a definite article in German when they aren't used in English. For example

  • die Liebe – "love" (the emotion)
  • das Leben – "life"
  • der Tod – "death"
  • der Weltraum – "(outer) space"

Since at this point we're only doing an overview of articles and determiners, we won't cover this issue in great detail here; the specific rules are numerous and typically not applicable in enough situations for a beginner to try to memorize them all at once. Instead, we'll mention this kind of thing when we cover the situations in which they arise. For now, just realize that you may occasionally notice an "extra' article appearing in German sentence where they would not be used in English, or a "missing" article in German where an article is expected in English. Rest assured that each of these unexplained appearances and disappearances has a "rational" explanation, but the explanation will often involve a very specific situation that we don't need to worry about for the time being.


  Introduction and overviewBasic terminology  Personal pronouns, formal and informal you, introduction to gender  Intransitive verbs, verb conjugation, present tense  Adverbs, V2 word order, Negation of verbs, Sentence adverbs  Stem-changing verbs, Weak vs. Strong verbs  Polar questions, V1 word order, Pre- and postamblesNoun genderNoun pluralsNoun phrases, ArticlesTransitive verbs, Accusative case, word orderPronomial possessives, Possessive determiners, Possessive pronouns, Negation with keinIrregular verbs, Past-like present verbsUninflected adjectives, Predicate phrases, Copulative verbsInterrogatives, der wordsFuture tense, The sentence bracketDitransitive verbs, Dative caseCoordinating conjunctions, Ellipses, Adverbial conjunctions, Multipart conjunctionsPrepositions with accusative and dative, Prepositional verbsPrefixed verbs, Separable verbs, Separable and inseparable prefixesImperatives, The imperative mood, The impersonal imperativeImpersonal verbs, Impersonal pronouns, the Point-of-view dativeDative prepositionsPossessives and the genitive caseModal auxiliary verbsThe simple past tense

  Adjectives and Adverbs  Alphabet  Cases  Nouns  Prepositions and Postpositions  Pronouns  Sentences  Verbs

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